This blog was first posted in August 2016.
Today, it is the young people who most strongly uphold the ideal of Europe as a shared space, where people from different countries lie and work together. The Young Eyes project, that has involved teenagers from Poland, Latvia and Sweden and young professionals from Scotland, shows how young people can, and will, shape the future.
I helped set up the Young Eyes project, and attended the final meeting of the project, that was held in Oslo last week. It demonstrated how much the young participants had learned, but also sent out their messages to their local councils and others like them across Europe.
Young People and Peripheral Regions
It can be tough to be a teenager living in a sparsely populated, mainly rural region far from one of Europe’s big cities. You may need to move to get education or to find a job. Many who go away do not return, leaving behind a falling and ageing population. A cycle of decline makes it hard to sustain the services that young adults need – schools, entertainment facilities, youth centres, public transport and career opportunities.
That is why four local councils from Europe’s periphery decided to work together through the Innovation Circle Network, which focuses on ways to mobilise local assets in small towns beyond the travel-to-work areas of major cities. None of the four are easy to reach or to travel around. Robertsfors is a municipality of around 6,800 population, north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden. Suwalki is a medium sized Polish town, in the rural region near the Lithuanian border, and about 4 hours by road from Warsaw. Jelgava, in southern Latvia, is a collection of 13 small rural parishes, while Rauna municipality, in the north east of that country, has a population of only 4,300. They were joined in the Young Eyes ERASMUS+ project by PAS, and Edinburgh-based social enterprise through which planners and other built environment professionals volunteer their time to assist communities and young people to get involved in place-making.
Governance, Identity and Action-Plans
Over the last 18 months youth leaders have worked with local groups of youngsters, using a common set of guidelines that I helped draw up. They began by finding out about governance in their towns, for example by meeting with local politicians to hear how decisions are taken. Each group then built on this base to explore identities – of themselves and of their towns. Finally they worked on preparing an action plan for their place, which they presented to the local council.
As well as these on-going local activities, each municipality hosted an international workshop, so all the youngsters got practice in working and presenting in English, and most of them were able to visit a foreign country; for some it as the first time they had travelled abroad. PAS volunteers played an important training role in these events. For example, they introduced the idea of a social enterprise at the international workshop in Jelgava earlier this year. This fired the enthusiasm of some participants, as they had never heard about social enterprises before.
The final workshop in Robertsfors gives a flavour of the whole project. It was held at the start of June, giving the visitors a chance to experience the midnight sun, while reminding them that in this part of Europe, in mid-winter the weak daylight lasts from about 10.30am until 1.30pm. Participants stayed at a campsite by the sea – there are no hotels here. Simply reaching Robertsfors was a way of learning about peripherality in Europe. Different groups arrived at very different times, with some not getting there until the early hours after an exhausting day’s travel.
The youngsters were introduced to project planning methods, including how to prepare a logical framework for a project. They presented and compared the local action plans they had prepared back home. There was a meeting with the Mayor, exploration of local history, and a discussion of how global challenges needed local actions. Then they were given the task of making short videos which were shown on the final morning of the event. Swedish TV featured it in their news programme.
Some powerful messages were put over in the videos. “We have to believe in ourselves and in our ideas”, says one boy, “We should never give up.” I’ve learned to work in groups, and that you need to work hard,” says another. Most dramatically, a young woman told the Swedish TV cameras, “We are the next generation who will improve our city if they will listen to us, but if nobody will listen then we’ll go away where somebody will be listening.” Young Eyes has taught these young people that they have a voice. It has shown them that co-production works. Can the older generation, locally and in the ministries and even in Brussels, respond to this challenge? It could be the way to save the European Union from itself.